USING BIOGRAPHY. By William Empson. Harvard University Press. 265 pp. $17.50.
USING BIOGRAPHY is the last book that William Empson wrote before his death last year. The title sounds innocuous, but it is meant to flout the numerous critics who hold that art is impersonal rather than personal, and that a writer's intentions cannot be known and are anyway irrelevant. Empson's first book, Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), had an equally challenging title. Seven Types made a whole generation read poetry differently. Instead of bathing in romantic images, they felt compelled to probe and sift rigorously for multiple meanings. Staid poems were suddenly infused with intellectual excitement. Works that had been regarded as singleminded and direct were suddenly revealed to be "plurisignificant." The inertia of easy acceptance was overridden by the example set by Empson of a wry, suspicious, acute, assertive and yet unpretentious mind. A mathematician by training, he analyzed lines with something like scientific precision. Tactless because too many had been decorous, he wrote in an unexpected manner, using slang, contractions, jokes. Being interested in everything, he also made available to criticism the whole post-Freudian world in which complexities rather than simplicities were the rule.
Empson was always inclined to use whatever biographical facts he could fit into his theories. Being a distinguished poet as well as a critic, he evidently felt that his own life and work were intertwined. Until his biography, now in process, is published, we can only guess what such intertwinings were. But his life was often spectacular. He taught in Tokyo and Peking in the 1930s, and after the war returned to China. Eventually he gravitated to the more conventional University of Sheffield in England. Though knighted by the Queen, he remained a maverick, fiercely independent in politics as in literature. Against more rarefied theoreticians, he insisted that writers attempt to say things and want others to know what they are up to. From infancy we try to figure out what people mean. In a successful piece of literature, we come closer to communicating intention than in any other use of language. Those who deny an author his intentions generally impute to him without realizing it some intention that he did not have.
Using Biography offers unexpected insights into a series of writers who have always held Empson's interest: Marvell, Dryden, Fielding, Yeats, Eliot, and Joyce. As always, he is ready to take anybody on, and while he gets a bloody nose now and again, he makes good points in the process. In general, he sides with idiosyncratic authors against learned interpreters who tend to standardize. In Marvell's "The Garden" he finds traces of the fall of man, and regrets that a noted French critic thinks otherwise. On another plane, Empson offers a spirited and finespun defense of Marvell's housekeeper against the charge of lying for gain in claiming to be his widow. If Empson is right, she was his widow. Himself a skeptic, Empson points up the skepticism in Dryden, and contends that Deism played a larger part in his thought than the Roman Catholicism he tardily accepted. He defends Henry Fielding against moralists such as Dr. Johnson, who supposed that there could be only one code of morals in the world, when Fielding was imaginatively sympathetic to two.
Empson is warranted in complaining, against a scholar-critic, that Yeats' Byzantium cannot be identified as Paradise. His own attempt would present the poem as a science-fiction return to a haunted city of a millenium ago. This may not satisfy either. As often in his work, he reads and refutes one critic, impatiently assuming that that one stands for all. Yet more convincing xplanations of the Byzantium poems have been offered. One is that Yeats here equates the world of artistic creation with the world of spiritual purgation after death; hence works of art as well as ghosts populate the scene.
Of T.S. Eliot's lost manuscript of The Waste Land Empson disarmingly relates, "I was one of the mugs who hoped that the story of the poem would be unveiled when the lost bits were restored." It isn't unveiled, though the recovery of the manuscript inspires Empson to some plausible speculations about the poem. He thinks that it was triggered by the death of Eliot's father. Since some of the restored bits have to do with a Jewish businessman, he thinks that Eliot unconsciously presented his businessman-father in this guise, the better to mock him. This seems possible if unverifiable. On the other hand, Empson seems merely capricious when he tries to identify the man described by Eliot "as the young man carbuncular" with the critic T.E. Hulme. Using biography can degenerate into misusing it.
THE ESSAYS on Joyce, with which the volume concludes, are the most ambitious. They are convincing when they argue against now popular views, such as that Joyce, because he was so reticent, was cold and antihumanistic. Empson is being sensible when he cannot abide the current notion that Ulysses is written not by Joyce directly but by Joyce through the agency of "an Arranger" -- a sort of surrogate author with no feelings. He has good things to say about Joyce's sympathy for both Stephen and Bloom. He wisely scotches some farflung conjectures that Stephen, because his glasses were broken, sees nothing all day.
Aside from these tonic corrections of others, Empson is principally concerned to establish what he calls the Bloom offer. He thinks the book implies that Bloom will shortly hand over his wife to Stephen Dedalus so as to have a son with his help. Of course we all enjoy lingering with fictions after the author ha finished with them. Empson's evidence is, however, quite tenuous. It is chiefly that Bloom, having failed to persuade Stephen to stay the rest of the night at his house, invites the young man to exchange Italian lessons with Molly Bloom in return for singing lessons. This time Stephen accepts. But what Empson disingenuously fails to mention is that Bloom proposes at the same time that he and Stephen should take walks together. This also Stephen accepts. But then, in this question-and-answer chapter, comes the dubious note: "What rendered problematic for Bloom the realization of these mutually selfexcluding propositions?" And the knelling answer is "the irreparability of the past" and "the imprevidibility of the future." Empson would foresee what Joyce explicitly says cannot be foreseen. Joyce then drops the subject, as Empson might well do.
Because he realizes his case needs bolstering, he tries to buttress it by appeals to Joyce's biography. He is convinced that Joyce wrote a letter to his friend Frank Budgen about the Bloom offer, and then reclaimed the letter because he was afraid that his book would be censored if the Bloom offer became known. Unfortunately for his theory, the letter reclaimed by Joyce had nothing to do with the Bloom offer. As Budgen told this reviewer, and as his best friend confirmed from memory, it had to do with Joyce's disappointment on first meeting his patron Harriet Weaver. The reason he reclaimed the letter was that he feared it might come into Miss Weaver's hands and prevent further benefactions. Perhaps he also thought better of his judgment of her.
What is particularly outlandish about Empson's theory is that it assumes Joyce would defer to the censorship. If there is one thing certain about Joyce, it is that he was one of the most intrepid writers who ever lived. That he would have altered his book to pass the censor is not credible. In any case, the Bloom offer is not nearly so extreme a many of the kinks delineated in the brothel chapter. Empson got hold of this idea of the Bloom offer many years ago; he wrote about it then, gave up some of it, then stubbornly tried to reconstitute it. It remains as implausible as ever.
No, the great secret in Ulysses is not the Bloom offer. It is, now that critics are coating the book with ice, Joyce's warmth about life and literature. This Empson understands better than most present-day critics. It is sad to say farewell to such an independent and original mind. Even his mistakes are what Joyce called the portals of discovery.